This can't be happening, yet it is. St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols can't be talking about free agency. The Cardinals can't be less than three weeks away from making that crazy conversation a reality. It's impossible. All of it. Pujols is too classy, and the Cardinals are run too smartly, for this happen.
Yet here we are.
|Albert Pujols seems almost as synonymous with St. Louis as the arch. (Getty Images)|
You thought LeBron James' free agency was a major story? That was nothing compared to this. The NBA is nothing compared to baseball, for one thing, and the NBA's salary cap reduced LeBron's list of realistic destinations to three or four while creating a hard ceiling for his annual salary.
For Pujols, the sky would be the limit. Imagine the Yankees and Red Sox competing for him. The Mets getting involved. The Dodgers and Angels. White Sox and Cubs. Let me say that again: The Cubs. Trying to get Albert Pujols.
The Cardinals can't let this happen, can they? Pujols wouldn't even think about it. Would he?
The scenario is so improbable, I'm tempted to write off this entire story as the biggest piece of manufactured garbage since the Y2K bug. Pujols isn't going anywhere. He wouldn't. Not that the Cardinals would let him. They couldn't.
And yet, I'm not writing it off. It has nothing to do with LeBron James' shocking decision to leave Cleveland, either, because the lessons taught by James have no relevancy on Pujols. To compare James to Pujols is an insult to Pujols, who is as mature as James is infantile. James craves cameras; Pujols craves privacy. James throws lavish parties in his own honor every few weeks in NBA cities, celebrating the money-making wonder that is LeBron James. Pujols raises money for families dealing with Down syndrome, the chromosomal condition afflicting his daughter, Isabella.
They are nothing alike. One is a complete fool. The other is one of the best baseball players of all time. And Pujols is still in his prime. Then again, maybe he's not there yet. Pujols seems to have been in his prime every year since he reached the big leagues in 2001. Each year since his numbers have risen in some categories and fallen in others, but only slightly in either direction. Imagine if he hasn't even peaked yet. He's only 31. Maybe this is the year. Imagine that. Where's his Triple Crown, anyway? We're still waiting for that, Albert.
Well, I am. All of St. Louis, meanwhile, is waiting for an end to this agony. As of Saturday night, three of the eight most-read stories in any section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's website were four-day-old pieces on Pujols' contract.
St. Louis is obsessed with this story, but apparently mixed in its opinion. From what I can gather from the hundreds of reader comments after stories, and from the stories themselves -- including this one, headlined "Cards won't fold should Albert leave" -- St. Louis is horrified by, but also bracing for, Pujols' possible departure.
St. Louis has been paying attention, because it could really happen. Something has gone wrong between the Cardinals and Pujols, something so unpleasant that Pujols has mercilessly pushed St. Louis into a corner. First was the Feb. 19 deadline mandated by his agent, Dan Lozano. After that day, the Cardinals' first full workout of spring training, Pujols won't listen again to contract talks until after the season. That gave Pujols almost all the leverage, other than the idea that the Cardinals could cut their losses by trading him -- a loophole Pujols' side closed this weekend by leaking it that they would block any trade by invoking his 10-and-5 veteran rights.
So the Cardinals have less than three weeks to get this contract done, or they'll have to bid against the Yankees, Cubs, etc. after the season. That's an unbelievably harsh position for Pujols to have forced onto his organization, so my guess -- and it's only a guess -- is that their abbreviated contract talks of 2010 still linger. If you'll remember, Pujols went into last spring training hoping for a contract extension. After a single meeting between his team and his agent, those talks were tabled for the entire season.
Did the Cardinals low-ball Pujols in February 2010? My guess is yes, though "lowball" is a relative term. How could the Cardinals not lowball Pujols? Whatever they offer, Pujols could argue that he's worth more -- and he could honestly believe it.
There is no established market for Pujols, because there is nobody like him. The Cardinals gave Matt Holliday $120 million for seven years and the Phillies gave Ryan Howard $125 million for five, but the math doesn't apply to Pujols. Maybe St. Louis should look at those two contracts, split the difference in years -- but add the money: Sign Pujols for six years and $245 million. I'm joking, unless I'm not.
The guy is a three-time MVP, he finished in the top four six other times, and he'd be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2016 if he retired tomorrow. But he'll keep going, putting up cartoon career numbers that will have him mentioned, 100 years from now, with all-time great hitters like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. Where, you ask, are Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron? Somewhere behind Albert Pujols.
St. Louis was fourth in baseball last year in attendance, but only 13th in payroll. In other words the Cardinals have money to burn, and it's time to light the match. So here's what you do if you're St. Louis: Whatever Pujols wants, within reason, you give it to him. What's within reason? No idea. The closest baseball has had to a free agent like this was Alex Rodriguez in 2001, when he received $252 million for 10 years. That was $25.2 million annually, and that was a decade ago. And Pujols is better.
So pay the man, St. Louis. How you let it get this far, I'll never understand.